Why is a Stanford Researcher Studying our Faculty? Mindfulness & Meeting Our Changing World and School

by Sam Shapiro, 9th Grade Dean of Instruction, Assistant Director of Admission, Humanities Faculty

I turned off my phone and stashed it in the glove compartment of my car. I didn’t look back as I locked the car and walked to the front door of the retreat house. Finally, after six months of eager anticipation, I was here to spend nine days in silent, mindful meditation. After I signed up for the retreat in January,  the more my “to do” list overflowed with tasks, no matter how stimulating and rewarding they were, the more I couldn’t wait  for this time in a forest in Northern California, for simple, quiet, undistracted awareness of my moment-to-moment existence. Yes, it was going to be difficult. Silence? Mindfulness meditation?  For nine days? Still, what a welcome contrast from my otherwise hyper-scheduled and pressurized life.

For a few days, it was exactly what I needed. I was alive and unburdened. But on the fourth night, as I fulfilled my volunteer duties of washing dishes, I felt the urge to talk to the person who was working alongside me. The silence between us suddenly felt awkward. And in the awkwardness, I did what we have all grown accustomed to doing to fill life’s moments of shiftless waiting: I reached to my pocket for my cell phone. My inbox would give me relief. Of course, my phone was still locked away in my car’s glove compartment, but that didn’t stop me from reaching anyway. I sought to numb this unfiltered, uncluttered, and perfectly fine moment of life. Pavlov’s dog heard the bell and drooled. I felt mild social anxiety, and sought a screen. Disappointed in myself, I turned back to the dishes. I had come here to escape my inbox, and yet after only four days, I found myself yearning for it.

The Pressing Question

At the Athenian School, we’ve been asking ourselves a new and vital question:  given the hyper-connected and distracting culture in which we work and educate young people, how can we harness the benefits offered in such a technologized and high-octane world, and do it in a way that promotes and cultivates focus, compassion, efficiency, and wellbeing? More bluntly, how do we avoid the opposite:  adults and students who are harried, distracted, disconnected, too busy to care, and ultimately shallow as thinkers and citizens.   The solutions to the challenge are of course myriad, but one we’re particularly excited about, and about which much movement is gathering in our school, is mindfulness. Based on ancient contemplative traditions, this potent antidote to the stressors of modern lives is a simple yet challenging practice that offers a deep dive into your physical, mental, and emotional experience. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the most well–known pioneer of the secular mindfulness movement, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

In the last two decades, researchers have revealed numerous compelling values gleaned from mindfulness practices. So much so, in fact, that courses in it are now being offered around the world to very diverse audiences: mindfulness classes for hospital patients suffering from chronic pain; for employees of Google, Goldman Sachs and Exxon; for inmates in juvenile halls; for worshipers at synagogues and churches; for kids in Oakland public schools; and now, this year, for Athenians.

Light Up the Mission

Why the enthusiasm? The demonstrated benefits of mindfulness continue to impress and inspire. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin recently discovered that people practicing mindfulness experience actual alterations in gene expression, allowing for stronger resistance to stress and increased resiliency. Other well-documented positives include increased gray and white matter in practitioners’ brains, stronger immune system functioning, greater emotional stability and well-being, greater potency of focus, increased standardized test scores, and stronger capacity for and tendency to act compassionately when encountering others in distress.

This last listed benefit—that mindfulness practitioners act more compassionately—is especially noteworthy: in a study by professor David DeSteno of Northeastern University, he found that when faced with what seemed to be a suffering patient in a medical  office, the subjects who were engaged in an eight-week mindfulness training course did something remarkable: while only sixteen percent of non-meditators intervened to help the patient in pain, fifty percent of those involved in the mindfulness training program got up to help.  This was especially impressive, because helping meant resisting the deleterious “bystander effect,” and acting on their own when everyone else in the waiting room ignored the struggling patient. We should pause and take this in: how many of us are in schools whose mission mentions the idea of developing caring, engaged citizens? While we know from recent research that activities like reading about characters through literature increases students’ tendencies to empathize with others, to feel their feelings, empathy isn’t enough. Brave, compassionate action is a whole new level: it moves us beyond just emotionally comprehending other’s struggles, to actually striving to alleviate the suffering itself. Our school’s mission enjoins us to aim this high. Now we have a practice we know fires up that noble aspiration to life.

What we Do

When we practice mindfulness meditation, as I do with my students at the start of every class and with teacher teams before I facilitate meetings, we sit in alert postures in our chairs, close our eyes, and we pay attention. Very close attention. In each moment we bring awareness to our bodies, our breath, our thoughts, our feelings, our senses, and we simply watch it all unfold without judging it or trying to change anything that arises in the theater of our inner experiences. Sometimes we have to watch our minds judging ourselves for judging ourselves, and we often see ourselves trying to change the impulse to change into one of not trying to change. These moment of “meta-cognition-on-steroids” get really interesting. Spend just a few minutes watching your mind, emotions, and body, and you’ll realize that simply within, there is never-ending richness to observe, consider, experience, understand, and, ultimately, with which to make friends. A common misunderstanding is that mindfulness is about getting rid of stress and discomfort. Rather, the truth is that mindfulness will often put us into the center of such inner storms. However, by—to adapt Kabat-Zinn’s definition of the practice—purposefully  and nonjudgmentally paying sharp attention to that storm, moment-by-moment, noting carefully its nature and allowing it to be, something usually settles; the push and pull of our judgments and inner conflicts that wage within ourselves, tend to calm. And by allowing our thoughts, emotions and sensations to rest in an attention of acceptance and curiosity, we do become friendlier with ourselves. Often while practicing mindfulness I’m reminded of the first few lines of Darek Walcott’s poem, Love After Love: “The time will come when, with elation, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other’s welcome, and say, sit here. Eat…”

Instead of seeking to flee and distract ourselves away from our moment-by-moment experiences, we sink into them with interest and acknowledgment, and from this, a greater sense of ease is bound to develop. Do this mindfulness practice every day for about twenty minutes, and, in fact, as the research keeps showing: blood pressure lowers, attention sharpens, and greater emotional stability takes root. Why wouldn’t we want to offer this to our school’s community?

Bringing Mindfulness to Athenian

Our initiatives with mindfulness started when about thirty Athenian employees signed up to participate in optional eight-week training courses (one in the fall and one in the winter) with Kate Janke, founder of the Heart-Mind Education Project and a professional mindfulness coach.  Meeting with Kate for an hour every week to learn and strengthen mindfulness practices, participants then spent twenty minutes each day on their own, practicing guided mindfulness by using MP3 recordings Kate pre-recorded.

Athenian participants were enthusiastic about their experience with the training, and Director of Learning Services,  Jeannine Morales, became intrigued too.  She had read about mindfulness’ efficacy for increasing focus and reducing anxiety, natural benefits that would be great for students. We drafted a model of a training course for students—once-a-week for six weeks, with ten minutes of individual MP3 practice per day—and offered it to the community. Thinking we would need a minimum of six students to sign up to make the course fly, we were delighted when eighteen kids responded with the desire to enroll.

There is now a growing body of Athenian parents requesting the mindfulness training for themselves—clearly our school’s parents face a similar panoply of pressures and distractions—and this parent class is in the works. Finally, in June, Kate and I will offer a residential mindfulness and compassion retreat for anyone who works in the life of a school—public or independent. This will function on two levels, giving individual faculty and administrators the chance to unplug and rejuvenate, and, offering guidance and silent practice periods through which to strengthen valuable mindfulness and compassion practices. These benefits can then be brought back into work lives and school communities next fall.

Growing Interest

This recent focus on mindfulness at Athenian has drawn interest from others in the field: recently, a researcher in educational policy from Stanford University began studying the Athenian adults involved with our eight-week mindfulness course. She is examining the influence of the program on teachers’ and administrators’ stress levels, effectiveness, and well-being. Based on what adult participants reported to us in anonymous evaluations at the end of the first eight-week session in the fall, the researcher will likely find clear benefits:

“From day one of this course, I feel that my ability to focus, be more present and have more patience was improved significantly and I’m motivated to continue this practice into the future.”

“I found our once a week meeting to be something I looked forward to with my colleagues. I felt closer to the colleagues with whom I shared this experience …”

“Allowing myself to participate in this training has given me the reminder that I can practice mindfulness whenever and wherever I intend, i.e., that this is a practice when done at its best is not only added to but also integrated within my daily life.”

“Since beginning this practice, the time it takes me to fall asleep each night has decreased significantly… Also, my partner noticed the positive change, noting how I stop and think before speaking, keeping our conversations on course where before they might have become full blown arguments.”

“Mindfulness practice allows me to see the bigger picture, to be more patient and more accepting of things how they are.”

“This training was a wonderful gift.”

A Personal Connection

My own relationship with mindfulness began when I was a senior in college. As part of a research project for an independent study with a professor, I participated in a hospital-based, eight-week mindfulness training program modeled on the one Kabat-Zinn pioneered at the University of Massachusetts’ medical school. Soon after graduation, I spent the next year practicing mindfulness for thirty minutes every day as I lived in Sumatra, Indonesia, and worked in the field of H.I.V./AIDS prevention. During that year, I had countless instances when I could see that this practice brought my life to life: I tasted, spoke, smelled, felt, thought, and lived more clearly, more openly, more effectively, and with greater satisfaction. After a year of consistent practice, I had a distinct feeling that my brain, the structure and hardware of my thought processes, quite literally, had changed. Too embarrassed to ever say such a wild-sounding statement then, I now write it without bashfulness, for in the last few years, numerous studies have shown just that: due to the plasticity of the human brain, the regular practice of mindfulness meditation creates real, positive changes in a its wiring and structure.

After my time in Indonesia though, I got married, started a career in independent schools, had kids, became a commuter, and dropped my regular mindfulness meditation practice. It always lived as something that nudged at me as I raced through my long days and sleep-deprived nights, reminding me that this practice had once improved my life tremendously. In the last few years, mostly because my own children are older and more self-sufficient, I’ve come back to the practice, and attended two extended residential mindfulness retreats. This year, practicing mindfulness with colleagues, and even just spending the first sixty seconds of each class and meeting I run in silence and in settling, has been a surprising gift: the discussion and work is more focused and thoughtful, and the shared awareness that we are engaging in learning and endeavors worthy of close attention and communication, well, it is just right.

Linking to our History


Dyke Brown drafted his vision for the ideal Athenian students and what they would receive from their education. Included in this “mandala” are: Understanding of self and others, bodily capability, aesthetic and spiritual capabilities, understanding of nature, understanding of society, understanding of humanity, and rational ability.

Fifty years ago Dyke Brown, Athenian’s founder, envisioned a school in which students experienced intellectual growth, fitness of body and character, commitment to humane values, aesthetic sensitivity, and readiness for adult citizenship and leadership. While mindfulness is not a panacea—in fact, beware of anyone who promotes one approach to education that is a cure-all—it is striking that an ever-increasing body of research is showing that mindfulness practices can play a vital part in cultivating each of the core qualities which Dyke Brown hoped to see in Athenians: stronger cognitive abilities, healthier bodies, greater awareness of and compassion towards others, and more potent sensitivity.  Athenian has always been forward-looking and ready to wisely embrace change as the world in which we teach and learn changes itself. Our incorporation of mindfulness practices into the life of our school is another example of this, and another reason I am proud to be part of this creative, smart, and brave project called The Athenian School.

Athenian Athletics: It’s About More Than Winning

Two sophomore students on Athenian’s basketball teams get to the bottom of how Athenian’s sports teams are about more than wining games. 


Trying a New Sport
By Christian Torru ’16

The men’s basketball program at Athenian is one of many great extra curricular activities available to students at our school. The basketball program is not only notable because it has a good division 5 varsity team, but because it is a program that accepts all and teaches students not only how to become better basketball players, but athletes, and more importantly, leaders.

In my experience–being a soccer player and a swimmer–starting basketball was a little nerve-wracking because I had never played on a basketball team before and I did not think I would do very well. I decided to play anyway because it sounded like a good experience and a place to be have fun with friends. Once I got to the first practice my freshman year, I realized that the season would be awesome, not scary. The coaches were very helpful and insightful, and I improved my game significantly in the first week alone, which I did not believe would be possible. By the end of my freshman season, I had become one of the top scorers and I was a starter.

Another thing I learned from my freshmen year on the team was balancing school and sports, because freshman year I discovered that high school is a challenge; you really have to manage your time so you can go to practice and be successful in school. Now that I am a sophomore and school is getting more rigorous, this skill of time management has been an extremely useful tool that has taught me to plan ahead so I can succeed in school.

Joining the Varsity Team as a Sophomore 
By Max Vukelich ’16

Although I have only been apart of the basketball team for a month or so, I can already tell you how many great opportunities and privileges it offers. The coaches and the players do a great job of representing the school and being open to new members of the team.

bball (1 of 1)

Because I was the only new player joining the varsity team this year, I was expecting to be on the outside looking in for the beginning weeks of the year. I didn’t know the plays, I wasn’t very familiar with the coaches and their style of coaching, and I had only talked to a few of the players on the team before joining since I’m a sophomore and the rest of the team are upperclassmen. I thought that I would have a tough time fitting in with the rest of my new teammates, but to my surprise, I didn’t. All of the players that I hadn’t met before introduced themselves, were very respectful, and were happy to meet their newest teammate. They helped me along in the plays and gave me friendly advice on how to improve my game.

Now, just a month into the season, I feel like I can go to anyone in that locker room and I know they will be there for me. Some of my closest friends are on this team. If it wasn’t for this opportunity, I might never have been friends with let alone talk with these people.

The coaches, Tony Dominguez and Robert Henschel, were also incredibly delightful and compassionate to me in my transition to the team. They allowed me to ask any questions if I needed to so I could help myself get on the same page as the rest of the players. They have great relationships with each of their players. Even in this short time knowing them, I know they will always have my back, on and off the court. They have figured out how to balance Athenian’s nurturing environment with developing a winning culture on the court.

This unbelievable school has so many chances for people to express themselves and be apart of a community. If you don’t play basketball, I know that there are plenty of other teams and clubs that offer a similar atmosphere as the basketball team does. I am so thankful that I get to be a part of such an incredible team, school, but most importantly, to be with such amazing people. Everyone in this community thrives here and the basketball team is a great example of how Athenian’s culture can create amazing opportunities for its students. 

Follow Athenian’s basketball teams on MaxPreps.

Year In Rap: 2013 Contest Entries

The New York Times is holding its third annual Year In Rap student competition. In 12-16 lines, students write about some aspect of the year in news. Last year, the Current Events seminar submitted a rap and were one of the group winners. This year, the Current Events class tackled 2013, as did the five sections of U.S. History. Relive 2013 through the Year in Raps below and check the New York Times’ Learning Network Blog in the coming weeks for the winners. Also, take a look at the original 2013 The Year in Rap video, from Flocabulary, the leaders in educational hip-hop.

 Current Events Class

In 2013 we lost Chavez and Mandela
The world mourned with South Africa and Venezuela
US government dealt out many a furlough
At least Pope Francis cared about the poor though
Syrian executions and weapons were horrors
Pollution in China forced people indoors
An album was dropped by Beyonce
But we still don’t know, What Does the Fox Say?
We watched Miley join the twerking fad
And saw the end of Breaking Bad
Instagram and Twitter ruled the universe
Facebook gettin’ ready for a ride in a hearse
New computers can recognize your face
40 million customers, Target disgraced
The hit show Glee missed their handsome lead
and “The Black Angel of Death” came for Lou Reed
–Anthony, Mark, Lauren, Emily G., Ben, Emily H., Tzofi, Holden, Noah L., Quyen, Hannah, Grace, Gabby, Noah S., Jamey, Pierson

U.S. History Classes

In 2013 Sum Ting was Wong–
We had airplanes, hurricanes, and a chemical bomb.

Manning violated the Espionage Act
While in Boston, the marathon was under attack.
Zimmerman was acquitted;
School shootings were committed.
The NSA was sneaking while gay rights were peaking.

The government quit workin’ while Miley was twerkin’.
In Family Guy, we said goodbye to Brian Griffin;
And hashtags had teenage girls trippin.
Teenage boys said hello to GTA5,
While Kendrick Lamar told us not to kill his vibe,

Walter White quit peddling blue ice,
While Ray Lewis and the Ravens took flight.
Katniss Everdeen caught fire,
and Lance Armstrong was proved a liar.
— Isa, Anni, Sajia, Vishnu, Abraham, Sachin, Malcolm, Akshay, Julia, Anna, Redden, Emma, Shingo, Kevin, Irena, David

The GOP led the government shut down
A typhoon in the Philippines and many drown
Dictator in Syria and rebels stay at odds
While the one in Korea threw his uncle to the dogs
Beysus and Yeezus made albums in the same year
Hannah Montana started her twerking career
The world caught fire and Broke Bad
Snapchats and vining made notable fads
NSA spied with big data, and a lie
Ultrasonic focal points make sand fly
3-D printed guns flying 40 rounds each
Google glass busts its stock and is within reach
Dead at 84, Bob Grant, the right wing talker
Driving a Porsche was what killed Paul Walker
Overseas in Britain, the Iron Lady falls
Down South Mandela dies, and the whole world bawls
–Matias, Matt C., Cole, Xenia, Delaney, Chase, Kelsey, Rehemah, Ira, David, Clara, Bobby, Lindsay, Matt W.

Francis becomes the new Pope
The Syrian rebels still have hope
The European Union is about to drown
as the US Government gets shut down
After a fire Dallas Wiens got a new face
And in China they finally got a moon base
Like in Star Trek, we mind meld with mice
But Jade Rabbit was the third ‘cause China failed twice
Drones no longer just for war in Iran
Instead packages come straight from Amazon
Google Glass brings a computer to your face
While like Voyager I, Bitcoin shot into space
Margaret Thatcher died by a stroke
And grief stirred the British folk
Our hearts go out to each Boston sprinter
And Nelson Mandela who passed this winter
–Emmet, Avery, Thao, Mateo, Katie, Madelyn, Dina, Theo, Vidya, Alyssa, Garrett

In 2013, the NSA can now read your text
You might want to consider what you say next
Parties conflicted so the government shut down
And a tragic tornado hit a small Oklahoma town
Pope Francis supported gays
While the Syrian rebels fought for dayzzzz
Al-Qaeda in the Middle East returned to power
While the situation in the Philippines became quite dour
Healthcare website is online
Facial recognition is stoppin’ crime
Google makin’ robots like Optimus Prime
Apple’s new IPhone is now all mine
Walker, O’Toole, Gandolfini and Monteith
Left many people trembling in grief
Mandela and Thatcher left their mark
The whole world remembers their spark
–Audrey, Bronwyn, Brody, Ari, Trevor, Mara, Natalie, Andrew, Kari, Tom, Fatima, Emma, Sam, Christian

Twerk Queen 2013
What does the fox say? Ring a ding ding.

Miley on a wrecking ball, licking a hammer;
Rob Ford smoked crack . . . Chris Brown in the slammer.

To Russia this year a meteor was sent
Causing destruction of the greatest extent.

Ray Allen for 3… BANG!  The crowd sang;
While the Spurs pleaded that the Heat cheated.
A-Rod is not a god because he took the ‘roids for his bod.

Congress caused the government to shutdown,
Obamacare’s rollout; Americans frown.
Snowden, the government’s secrets, disclosed. Dope.
Morsi is Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Nope.
Francis became Pope, while the chemical weapons’ ban gave Syrians hope.

So many disasters, from Typhoon Haiyan to the Boston Marathon,
Cry goodbye for all of those lost, long gone.
— Adam, Jonathon, Eli, Jillian, Eric, Nia, Rebecca, Trenton, Niky, Max, Paula, Zoey, Matt, Miguel, Arman, Anthony

Welcome to 2014: Dick Offers Hope for the New Year

As I reflected on the world at year’s end, I was struck by the idea of seemingly  intractable problems – that there are those we can do something about – and those we can’t .  An example of one where I feel I have no control is the fact that we are in the middle of a drought. This is a cause of anxiety to the old river guide in me – and as someone who knows all too well the dangerous game we play each year in California with our water.  The Tim Holm trail is bone dry, with little scraggles of grass trying to grow in the dust.  The maddening thing about a drought is, you can’t do anything to change it.  Conservation is critical, but it doesn’t ease the ache I feel for the once green hills.

And it seemed at year’s end that the world has devolved into a state of constant violence and conflict.  From our own political system, to countries and cultures across the globe, we humans seem less and less capable of finding common ground.  We seem to be moving farther and farther away from each other and the nature that bore us all. Yet, unlike the drought, there is something we can do about that.  And I thought of the poem that Maya Angelou wrote for the 1993 inauguration and our need to take responsibility to step forward into peace by connecting with each other.

-Dick Bradford, Head of Upper School and Academic Dean

On the Pulse of Morning

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no more hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.

Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.

Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the stone were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
Knew nothing.

The River sings and sings on.

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

Today, the first and last of every Tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River.

Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveller, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you
Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of
Other seekers- desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot…
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours- your Passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

by Maya Angelou